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Copyright Versus Free Software

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Free Software is often portrayed as anti-copyright. David Chisnall examines the close relationship between the two ideas and argues that Free Software is actually closer to the original spirit of copyright laws than proprietary software license agreements.
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A lot of people have been talking recently about the relationship between Free Software and copyright. On one extreme are those attacking Free Software using the straw man argument that all of its advocates are rabid anarchists bent on destroying the system of copyright. More moderate individuals have been discussing the impact of the new version of the GPL, a license based on copyright law.

Before investigating the connection between Free Software and copyright, it’s worth taking a look at exactly what copyright is. The name makes it sound simple enough: the right to copy something. Copyright laws vary a lot around the world, so I won’t try to address any specific laws, but rather give an overview of the principle behind the concept.

The Copyright Bargain

The right to copy something begins with the creator. (Until something has been created, no one can copy it.) In the absence of laws, the creator of a product has two choices:

  • Release the product for anyone to duplicate.
  • Keep the product secret.

For a long time, a lot of art was created on the patronage principle: Wealthy individuals would commission works of art to show off their wealth. The obvious downside of this practice is that the majority of culture was defined by the tastes of a very few people.

In the absence of patronage or legal protections, neither releasing the creation freely nor keeping it secret looks particularly appealing. If the creator releases his work, anyone can duplicate it without paying the creator. This solution is fine for some things; for example, the Mona Lisa is worth a lot more than any copies of the painting would be. Keeping the work secret is also far from ideal, however; the creator benefits, but no one else does.

Copyright was created as a compromise—a bargain between the creator and society. The creator gets a time-limited monopoly on a given work, enforced by society. In return, society gets full rights to the work at the end of this time limit (when it falls into the public domain), and gets at least some access to it before then. Because this arrangement makes it easier to release works and profit from them, there’s more incentive to create, and more people can benefit from the creations.

This system works fairly well, since both sides benefit from it. In recent years, however, the bargain has been skewed in favor of the copyright owners (who are often no longer the same group as the creators):

  • Long extensions to the copyright duration make it unlikely that anyone alive today will ever see anything recently created fall into the public domain during his or her lifetime.
  • Digital rights management (DRM) technologies restrict the use of the product.

As its name suggests, copyright covers copying. When I’ve finished writing an article, I send it to InformIT and swap my copyright for some money. This is the only right I have, however. I could choose to sell InformIT some subset of the distribution rights, such as Internet distribution, but I can’t control what they do with the article beyond that point. If we agreed to produce a printed version of this article instead, there’s nothing that I (or they) could do could prevent you, the reader, from using it as toilet paper. Copyright doesn’t give me the right to restrict use—just copying. Under the guise of copy protection, DRM attempts to twist this principle, by saying that you, the purchaser, can use the final product only in certain ways (for example, only on certain media players).

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